Story and Art: Hugo Pratt
When folks like Brian K Vaughn, Frank Miller and Umberto Eco praise Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, it’s worth paying attention. Corto Maltese – like his Italian-born creator – has become something of a cult figure in Europe. Thanks to poor translations, though, his adventures haven’t made much impact in English-speaking countries. Now, an imprint of IDW called EuroComics is collecting all of Pratt’s Maltese stories, with brand-new translations from Pratt’s own scripts. For English-speaking readers, this is the best introduction to the character you could hope to have.
The tales presented in Corto Maltese: Under The Sign of Capricorn were first published in the French magazine Pif in 1970. Corto Maltese himself is a gentleman rogue, travelling all over the world by sea, getting into all sorts of trouble. He is intelligent and dangerous, but not as nefarious as his reputation might suggest. Although his demeanour indicates that he is only out for his own gain, he is always getting involved with the affairs of others. He seems to relish curiosity and adventure more than anything else. At the beginning of this edition, Maltese joins forces with a young English boy, Tristan Bantam. Bantam has inherited information about the lost island of Mu, somewhere near the Pacific Islands. Along with washed-up Professor Steiner, they set off to discover more, getting mixed up in many adventures along the way.
The stories in this edition take place in the early 1900s, in the time of Imperialism and the First World War. Corto Maltese belongs to no country, but he tends to ally himself with the underdog. The underdogs in these stories are those opressed by white Imperialism. Often, in adventure stories like these, white people are heroic above all else. Anyone not white is ‘exotic’. There are traces of Othering here, but Pratt seems to be suspicious of it, and gives Maltese a knowing, cynical edge. As a result, the stories have aged rather well.
Presented in stark black and white, Pratt’s art is both minimalist and wonderfully detailed. His art is controlled and confident, and shows a knack for natural landscapes. It’s beautifully evocative, a masterful way of telling a story in graphic form. It’s a fantastic book, full of gorgeous scenery and sea-faring adventure. Anyone interested in the early days of graphic novels should check this out.